Arrighi II

Giovanni Arrighi’s “Hegemony Unravelling 2” is, frankly, rather disappointing. I commented on “Hegemony Unravelling 1” in an earlier entry. This second installment continues the argument that US global dominance is in terminal decline, and compares the end of this particular capitalist “spatial fix” with the successive declines of Genoa, the United Provinces, and Great Britain, each of which anchored earlier “cycles of accumulation.”

Unlike Hardt and Negri, however, who likewise claim that the current global system is shortly coming to an end, Arrighi believes that it will merely be superseded by a new system, this time with China in the driving seat: just as the US was the beneficiary of European wars in the first half of the twentieth century, so it is “China” that is “the real winner of the War on Terrorism” (115).

But as for “whether this ‘victory’ can translate into a new global spatial fix and what such a fix will look like” (115), Arrighi declines to elaborate. He has even less to say about the “less violent and more benevolent alternatives” that he invokes in his article’s dying breath (116).

Meanwhile, of hegemony in the Gramscian sense of order secured through consent, all Arrighi adds is the notion that the US has, since Vietnam, moved from offering protection against real external threats to operating a “protection racket” that provides security only from threats (real or imagined) that it itself generates. Hence states such as Japan and Germany, acting as rational actors in the global game of fiscal and political trust, have withdrawn their support from US overseas adventures, leaving the global hegemon for the first time to shoulder the military, political, and economic costs of its imperial project: “the failure of George W. Bush to make US clients pay for the second Iraq war [. . .] can be taken as a sign that by then the United States had lost both hegemoney [i.e. the ability to extort tribute] and hegemony [i.e. legitimacy]” (112).

The rise and fall of empires obeys, for Arrighi, the logic of some profound universal and transhistorical set of laws. There’s precious little room here for agency on the part either of the dominant or the dominated. Occasionally it is suggested that Bush’s neoconversative team made mistakes, for instance by “pushing” the American protection racket “too far” (113), but really it hardly seems to matter as, Arrighi suggests, US decline is as inevitable as, in retrospect, was the sun setting on the British Empire a century or so ago.

And as for the notion that subalterns (the proletariat, the Third World, or whatever) might become historical actors: well, Arrighi seems to be saying, forget about it.


I just read Giovanni Arrighi’s “Hegemony Unravelling I” in a recent issue of the New Left Review (32: March/April 2005).

Arrighi’s basic argument is that we are now seeing, with the war in Iraq, the “terminal crisis of US hegemony” (61) on the international stage (here, hegemony meaning its position as dominant economic, military, political, and cultural power), and that this is in part thanks to the fact that US authority is already no longer “hegemonic” (now in the sense of governance by means of consent rather than coercion).

Arrighi’s basic argument, then, is a critique of David Harvey’s view that the war in Iraq (and more generally, neoconservative-driven foreign policy since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon) is laying the grounds for a “new American Century” of revitalized imperialism. By contrast, what we are witnessing, Arrighi argues, is “the closing act of the first and only one, the ‘long’ twentieth century” (61). In this protracted decline, we see the US reverting to what, following Guha, Arrighi terms “dominance without hegemony” (32), a revitalized campaign of what Marx termed primitive accumulation but what Arrighi, in line with Harvey, prefers to call “accumulation by dispossession” (42), but pressed by trouble at home and abroad and in the financial debt of an increasingly reluctant international community.

The winner in all this will prove, we are told, to be China.

Arrighi’s analysis is certainly smart. Especially interesting is the notion that neoliberalism and neoconservativism are in fact opposed to each other: the claim is that the neoconservativism promoted by Bush Jr (and cronies) displaced the neoliberalism of the Reagan/Clinton era partly because (and this is also fairly novel) the US saw globalization as a threat to its interests. Behind this analysis is the proposition, taken from Harvey, that there is a fundamental contradiction in capitalist imperialism between the territorial logic proper to the state, and the deterritorializing logic proper to capital. All very Deleuzian, of course, though Arrighi doesn’t cite Deleuze (nor does he use the vocabulary of deterritorialization).

I’m suspicious of the proclamation of imminent crisis and breakdown. And anyhow, didn’t Deleuze and Guattari point out precisely that capitalism works by breaking down? Arrighi acknowledges this indirectly in his analysis of Schumpterian “creative destruction” as the response to crises of over-accumulation, though he suggests that there are now resistant forces within the US preventing creative destruction as an option, hence the move to primitive accumulation and imperial adventures abroad. I’m also rather suspicious of the announcement of a forthcoming “Chinese Century.” Haven’t we been faced with an ascendant Orient (“yellow peril,” call it what you, ideologically, will) for at least most of the past 100 years, perhaps longer? I suspect that, like the bourgeoisie, at any moment in time you can always argue that the East is “rising.”

More importantly, however, Arrighi has no concept of posthegemony. He, too, is caught in the dichotomy of either hegemony or dominance. Perhaps this is why he has so little to say (and what he does say is so unconvincing) about the ways in which stability is assured within the US, and indeed the reasons (beyond its sheer brutality) why the US has so spectacularly failed to win “hearts and minds” in the Middle East.

Arrighi’s version of hegemony (and its decline) is very much concerned with international relations, and indeed with what is at root a rather traditional view of international relations: focussed more on the amount of US securities bought up by the Japanese government than with (to pick up on either Laclau et. al. or Foucault) any discursive strategies Bush and his allies may invoke to establish or secure national or international order. In this, then, Arrighi is much closer to (say) Robert Keohane’s After Hegemony than even to Harvey. Paradigmatic of the conventional nature of his approach is that “culture” is hardly mentioned, and when the term does appear, it is only to refer in passing to the popularity (or otherwise) of “Hollywood movies [and] MTV” and to the destinations of global tourism (77). All in all rather odd in so far as he is also invoking a Gramscian notion of hegemony: which goes to show that it is the first meaning of hegemony (as dominance) that here holds sway over its second meaning (as a particular form of dominance).

Still, I look forward to reading Part II of this long piece, in the latest issue of the NLR, which should be winging its way to me anytime soon.